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MOCA renews museums' mission

The Los Angeles museum's escape from financial ruin is a reminder that the display of donated art is a key to survival.

November 20, 2009|By Selma Holo

The new anniversary exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art is not only cause for celebrating the financial stabilization of an irreplaceable cultural institution in Los Angeles. It also is part of an important turning point in the modern history of museums -- a renewed focus on permanent collections. With its "Collection: MOCA's First Thirty Years," the museum is the latest to put its own works of art front and center to attract the public rather than rely on traveling art spectacles.

Over the last 40 years, museums gradually moved away from their traditional mission of building and promoting permanent collections in favor of temporary exhibitions. Because museum directors and curators were increasingly judged by how many visitors came through the turnstiles, they staged and aggressively marketed multimillion-dollar shows to attract as many people as possible in the shortest amount of time. Exhibits of Tutankhamen's treasures and Impressionist paintings became regular museum fare.

But this model was unsustainable. The costly exhibitions seldom paid for themselves, and the potential audience couldn't necessarily afford the ever-escalating ticket prices. Many donors began to wonder why they were putting so much of their passion and treasure into building permanent collections that were seldom on view. And museum-goers groused about not being able to view more of these collections.

An over-reliance on expensive temporary exhibitions was one factor in MOCA's slide into near-insolvency. Its endowment was tapped to pay for them, and when shows failed to generate the expected revenues and donors were unwilling to come up with the difference, the museum had to go back to its lifeline to sustain operations, a practice that could not be endlessly repeated.

MOCA's return from financial collapse, signified by its current, glorious exhibition of 500 museum-owned works, should remind museum executives and donors that we need to relearn some basic core values that were forgotten in the frenzy to keep turnstiles turning.

This means recognizing anew that museums were built through major donations of art from devoted members of their local communities -- and that the dedicated display of these works is the measure of museums' future survival. Surveys conducted by the Chronicle of Philanthropy and the Center on Philanthropy and Public Policy at USC, which focused on foundations in the Los Angeles area, predict declining donations because of the economic slowdown and uncertainty, undermining the likelihood of more blockbuster exhibitions in the near future.

To better share their permanent collections with the public, museums need to launch more creative programming with respect to their exhibition and interpretation. People want to know how the collections came to their communities, the behind-the-scenes dramas of their acquisitions, their conservation and the history of their ownership or provenance. The tools and techniques -- orientation videos, audio tours and special openings -- that museums used to sell their glamorous temporary exhibitions could easily be redirected to this purpose.

We have already begun to see some examples along these lines. The Los Angeles County Museum of Art commissioned artist Jorge Pardo to design a display of its pre-Columbian collection. The result is a visually stunning exhibition that opens up a collection of works that had been largely overlooked by the general public.

And the Norton Simon Museum has in recent years highlighted its permanent collection by borrowing and showcasing just a few masterpieces at any given moment. Today, one can see the glorious "Comtesse d'Haussonville" by Ingres, and earlier this year the National Gallery of Art's "A Lady Writing" by Vermeer was on display -- both in the context of the museum's superb collection.

The principal obligation of museums -- one lost in the orgy of spectacle exhibitions -- is to transmit, principally by means of their permanent collections, their piece of our cultural DNA to their many publics. This is what they were created to do, and this is what they do best. Museums remind us, through their artworks, of our shared humanity, of our shared desire to create beauty, to investigate our past and to excavate our cultural history in pursuit of our origins.

People recall the museums they care about through the prism of specific artworks they have seen and hope to repeatedly see over time. Whether as residents of a city or as tourists, they want to visit the stars of the permanent collection. They seek out Picasso's "Guernica" at the Reina Sofia in Spain; they look for the Mona Lisa at the Louvre in Paris; they stand in awe in front of Monet's "Water Lilies" at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and they love "Blue Boy" and "Pinkie" at the Huntington in San Marino.

We don't need expensive surveys to know this truth about museums. We just need to follow the crowds and their outstretched arms holding cellphones taking pictures. MOCA has shown the way. And it will not be alone.

Selma Holo, director of the International Museum Institute and the Fisher Museum at USC, is co-editor, with Mari-Tere Alvarez, of "Beyond the Turnstile: Making the Case for Museums and Sustainable Values."

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